Hopping on and off cracked sidewalks, ever vigilant for dangerous litter, runner Keith Boissiere is about five miles into his daily constitutional -- a 20-mile run that will take him, among other spots, to Mondawmin Mall, on a bridge over Interstate 95, through an industrial park in Arbutus, past St. Agnes Hospital, and into the turf of a pit bull loose at the corner of Frederick and Monroe.
But right now, running lightly along Washington Boulevard on muscled but crane-thin legs, Boissiere is talking about a different run. He points to a rise in the hazy distance, an anonymous piece of road wedged between a strip of gas stations and convenience stores.
That's a place where he always feels good. Whenever he crests that particular hill -- which isn't very often -- he enters the limitless, head-clearing world of ultrarunning. Reaching that spot means he's running all the way to Washington. For him, it's a pleasure roughly equivalent to leaving school for summer vacation.
Boissiere, or the Running Man, as he's known to many, savors the 50-mile run from Baltimore to Washington. He travels the old way, down U.S. 1. He runs along Washington Boulevard until it finally turns into Rhode Island Avenue. Then he runs along that, turning left on North Capitol, until he reaches his destination: the steps of the Capitol.
It takes about 7 1/2 hours from his studio apartment in West Baltimore to the Capitol, he says. He runs alone, stopping occasionally to buy drinks along the way. Once he's touched base and tasted that priceless view, he walks to the Greyhound terminal on First Street, buys a ticket and heads back to Baltimore.
There's never any fanfare, and he doesn't expect it. This runner is all about the journey.
Boissiere runs the D.C. route six times a year -- it's unquestionably his favorite -- but never in winter. So today he's just putting in his regular distance -- the 20 miles he says he's run daily for the past decade. In that time, he's developed 15 routes throughout the city, using downtown Baltimore as the center of a giant running wheel.
Because he doesn't have a car to measure his courses, he developed his distances based on a low-tech method: timing himself on a 20-mile track run, then figuring out his pace -- roughly nine minutes per mile. Then he plotted his routes based on that formula. Some of his routes are a little longer than 20 miles, he says. And some days, when he's slower than a nine-minute pace, a three-hour run comes closer to four.
On this cold, drizzly day, Boissiere is wearing shorts and four layers of shirts: A tank, a rainbow tie-dyed shirt, a long-sleeved cotton jersey and a sweat shirt with "New York" written across it. He's also wearing a wool hat, tied under his chin, and mittens. A plastic rain poncho is cleverly tucked up his sleeve. So is a cell phone.
But there is no water bottle. There is no energy bar. This man doesn't even wear a watch.
Most runners buy new shoes every 400 miles or so. Boissiere's shoes -- Adidas, size 13, purchased in late October at the Locker Room near Lexington Market -- have seen roughly 1,800 miles at this point. He laces his shoes so loosely that he can slip his heels in and out at will. Thanks to this system of lacing, he says, he never has foot pains. He's never even had a blister.
"Hey there, Running Man!" a young guy calls, giving him a thumbs-up. "Hey man, you rock!"
Known to many
Boissiere's grown used to daily acknowledgments by strangers. A creature of deep routines, the 53-year-old native of Trinidad and Tobago tends to show up in the same place, almost at the same time, on many of his routes. People look forward to seeing him.
While many runners balk at running down streets they've seen only on Homicide, Boissiere embraces the city's many communities. He tends to run from midday into the afternoon, alone, preferring neighborhoods where there are always plenty of people outside.
His definition of playing it safe has made him one of Baltimore's more familiar characters.
Pennsylvania potter Deborah Tinsman, who has known Boissiere for 10 years, first thought he was a celebrity because she noticed so many people pointing at him when he visited her booth at Artscape. Sometimes they would approach him, shake his hand and introduce themselves.
"I thought he was a musician, maybe, because so many people knew him," she recalls. "When I asked him, he said 'Oh no. They just see me running.'"
One day as Boissiere was running near Towson, independent filmmaker John Chester persuaded him to be interviewed for Euphoria, an artistic documentary about the nature of long-lasting happiness.
His grizzled beard, ascetic physique and soulful face suggest wisdom and serenity. In the years he's been running, he says, he's heard more people refer to him as Jesus than as Running Man.
"Keith's a deep thinker," says his longtime friend Nigel Atheley. "He reads a lot. Since he began running, he's a lot more focused and more deliberate ... He only gets what he needs and doesn't get any extras."
Living alone, going to bed at 7 p.m. if he feels like it, Boissiere's found a way to support himself as a carpenter and keep his 5-foot-9, 127-pound frame fit enough to run 140 miles a week.
There are certain things that Keith Boissiere will not do. He will not become an American citizen just so he can use his mechanical engineering degree from Howard University at a big firm. He will not buy a car. He does not need a computer. He will not eat meat -- not for his health, but because he just doesn't like it.
As a runner, he will not train before dawn unless the forecast calls for temperatures higher than 95 degrees that day. He will not run on wooded trails because he considers them too isolated and dangerous. He will not run in fields or past bushes because he's afraid of Lyme disease. He will not listen to music. He's not interested in running any faster than he already does. And he does not enter races, although he might consider running an ultramarathon distance of 50 miles or greater.
At 26.2 miles, the Baltimore marathon is too short to be personally challenging, he says, although he has considered running the course twice.
"I fail to see the reason why I would want to beat someone," he says. "Racing doesn't appeal to me. ... In ultrarunning, there is not so much a need to beat someone, you get in those races for the fun of it. When you do a 100-mile race, you just want to run and have a good time -- and that's how I see running."
Boissiere's flexible schedule -- he works for his uncle's home repair business in Pimlico -- allows him the time for four-hour runs.
"I'm not married and I don't have children," he says. "That's the only reason I have time to devote to this."
After graduating from high school in Trinidad, he came to Maryland in the mid-1970s to attend college and lived with relatives in the area. He started running in the 1980s when he read that it was the best way for him to get in shape.
Including, apparently, finding the nutrition that works for him. A vegetarian, he fixes various combinations of beans, rice, pasta and soy for post-run meals. Before he runs, he eats nothing except honey -- and he eats a half pound of that from a five-pound jar that lasts 10 days.
He also lives light. Boissiere's bedroom serves as his living room; he invites a guest to sit on his weight bench. There's a closet, a cabinet displaying pottery bought from Tinsman at Artscape, a small stereo, a 13-inch color TV, a bike, his toolbox. A trunk is filled with books on health, exercise and running that date back to the 1970s.
But why run 20 miles every day, instead of, say, 12?
"After you reach something like 15 miles, you get a whole different feeling in your body that lasts for about two days," he says. "When I was transferring from 12 miles to 20 miles, I realized how 20 makes you feel -- and that's the feeling I want. Some people call it runners' high. I don't call it that. Your body feels flushed. Calmer. You feel so good that you don't need anything to make you feel less stressful. ... When you're running, it's a very peaceful time."
When he started running 20 miles every day, he says, he didn't expect it would last long.
"I considered the notion of going for a whole year, but told myself that was impossible. Then, when I started on two years, I didn't think that was possible. When I reached 10 years, I was quite happy with that, quite content. ... I have read that ultrarunners are very contented. It's a simple life."
Don Allison, the publisher of Ultrarunning magazine, adds the word "frugal."
"Ultrarunners go down the list of things other people say they've got to have and reject a lot of them. They'll say 'I can live without cable TV.'"
Although Boissiere has subscribed to the magazine for about 15 years, Allison is unaware of him as a runner. He says most subscribers seek out his magazine to find races and pick up tips on how to improve their performances.
"A long time ago, I was at an ultra with a friend and we were looking at the other people around us. He said 'This is a group of middle-aged men trying to prove something.' It might sound kind of smart-alecky, but it's not that far from the truth. The standard line is that they're pushing themselves to find out what they can do."
Many ultrarunners train for a race (an ultra is any race longer than a marathon), run it and receive a medal they can show any doubters who knew them way back when.
Keith Boissiere, on the other hand, has no proof that he runs 20 miles every day. Although he may possess one of the running world's most unusual streaks, he's not concerned by whether anyone beyond his daily routes believes it. Instead, he's looking forward to his first D.C. run of 2006. He says he'd welcome company.
April 7, 1952, in Trinidad and Tobago
Apartment in Harlem Park
Claims to have run at least 20 miles a day for the past 10 years
50-mile run from his house to the Capitol in Washington.